The secret story of Big Ben begins in 1834 with the devastating fire which destroyed the Old Palace of Westminster. This disastrous event eventually led to the building of one of London's most prominent attractions and a world famous landmark of the city.
A prominent icon of London and the United Kingdom, Big Ben is a large bell inside the Clock Tower on the northern side of the Palace of Westminster. Much attention is given to the chimes of Big Ben. But how much do we know about the famous Westminster clock? When most people think of Big Ben, they think of the clock tower there at the Houses of Parliament. Big Ben is actually a nickname that refers to the Great Bell within the tower itself. Officially, the tower is referred to as Elizabeth Tower, connected to the Palace of Westminster.
This Palace is common to everyone as the British Houses of Parliament. Owing to the popularity of the Clock Tower and its chimes, citizens associate the name ‘Big Ben’ with not just the bell or the clock, but with the whole tower. Officially though, the Clock Tower got a name change on the occasion of the present Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebration in 2012; and is now called Elizabeth Tower.So what are some of the interesting facts about a bell, you ask? Well, read on.
Origin of Big Ben – A History of Huge Fire
Have you ever wondered how the name, Big Ben came to be used for this distinctive clock tower in London? There are various theories to explain from where Big Ben was derived. One of them is from Benjamin Hall, who was a very tall politician in those days in Britain. He was an engineer too, and the First Commissioner of Works during whose tenure the bell was cast for the first time. Another theory says it is named after Benjamin Caunt, a heavy weight professional boxer who during those days had won several boxing matches and was in the news. Anyhow, although the Big Ben has several alternative names, including Big Tom, The Great Westminster Clock, Clock Tower, and the most recent Elizabeth Tower, people all around the world still know it by the Big Ben.
On 16th October 1834, the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by a fire. A huge fire. Londoners came out to watch it, and legend has it, Charles Barry (whom we’ll meet in a moment) was passing by in a coach and stopped to watch for a while. There were so many spectators, they actually hampered the firemen’s efforts to douse the flames. When the flames were put out, there wasn’t much left. Only Westminster Hall. Parliament had nowhere to meet and they had to cancel their session.In November 1835, 13 months later, they set up a committee to re-build and they held a competition for designs. More than 400 designs were submitted by more than 90 architects.
In the end, the committee chose the design of Charles Barry, but here’s a little secret: His original design did NOT include a clock tower! They asked him to revise it and to add a clock tower, of course with a clock inside!Working with his trusty (but somewhat highly strung) assistant, Augustus Welby Pugin, Charles Barry added a clock tower to his design, along with four faces, and really big bells! But Charles Barry, quite rightly, asserted that HE was an architect, not a clockmaker. So he asked Benjamin Lous Vuillamy, clockmaker to the Queen, to design a clock.
By this time, it was 1841, so you can’t blame Charlie for wanting to get on with his project. However….ALL the expert clockmakers across Britain were upset that he had asked Benjamin Louis Vuillamy to design the clock, without so much as an open competition. One clockmaker, Edward Dent, wrote to George Airy, Astonomer Royal, asking him to recommend him for the job. Of course, George Airy did so, and, as a result, the committee decided that George Airy should write up a list of requirements for the Great Clock. They asked him to choose the design and the clockmaker to boot!
So Big Ben was silent for a number of months while the arguments ensued. Yet again, there was A lot of finger pointing and blaming each other. Edmund Beckett Denison thought that Whitechapel Bell Foundry had cast an inferior bell, and Whitechapel Bell Foundry thought that Edmund Beckett Denison had designed a hammer that was too large and well, there was A lot of finger pointing. Ultimately, George Airy came up with a solution: Turn Big Ben a quarter turn, so that the hammer will strike a different spot. And that’s just what they did – turned Big Ben so that the hammer strikes a different spot. Even today, when you visit the belfry, you can see the big crack in Big Ben. We think it adds to his charm!
Other mysterious and historical facts
- Although now generally applied to the clock and tower, the name ‘Big Ben’ was originally given to the hour bell cast by John Warner and Sons in 1856.
- The ‘Ben’ in the name is thought to be a tribute to Sir Benjamin Hall, commissioner of works for the project, who was, appropriately, a man of great size.
- The diameter of each of the clock’s four dials is 23ft and each contains 312 panes of glass.
- The hour hands are 9ft long, the minute hands are 14ft long, and the numerals are 2ft high.
- The hour bell – Big Ben itself – chimes the note E.
- The ‘Westminster Chimes’, played on the quarterhour, were once the Cambridge Chimes, having first sounded on the clock at Great St Mary’s, Cambridge.